LITTLE ROCK, AR – Citing evidence that low-income Arkansas residents have unlawfully been denied the opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from the voting rights groups Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, Project Vote, and the law firm of Proskauer Rose today sent an official notice letter to Secretary of State Mark Martin, informing him that Arkansas public assistance agencies are failing to comply with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
The letter, sent on behalf of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, informs Secretary Martin—in his capacity as the state’s chief election officer—that Arkansas public assistance agencies must rectify this situation or face litigation. The voting rights groups offer to work cooperatively with Secretary Martin and state officials to achieve compliance with the NVRA.
The NVRA is commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law because of its requirement that motor vehicle departments provide voter registration services. An equally important, but often neglected, provision requires public assistance agencies, such as those providing SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid services, to offer voter registration services to their clients with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction.
According to the letter, evidence collected through field investigations and records requests shows ongoing violations of the law at public assistance agencies in Arkansas.
This is the second notice letter the groups have sent to Arkansas officials. In 2012, the groups notified Arkansas of systemic violations of the NVRA. That letter indicated that numbers of voter registration applications from Arkansas public assistance agencies had dropped dramatically, from over 28,000 in 1996–1996 to fewer than 4,000 in 2009–2010. The Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) responded with policy changes to better incorporate mandatory voter registration services into SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, and other service provisions, and Arkansas agencies reported a slight uptick in voter registration numbers.
However, today’s letter notifies the state that many public assistance clients—including those who interact with DHS online—are still not being provided the voter registration services required by law.
"It is clear that Arkansas continues to violate the NVRA, which means that thousands of low-income residents are being denied their federally guaranteed opportunity to register to vote,” said Sarah Brannon, Director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote. “The NVRA requires these services be provided exactly to reach these residents, and other eligible citizens who are less likely to register through other means.”
“This notice is an important opportunity for Arkansas,” said Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, counsel at Demos. “At a time when the freedom to vote is under attack across the country, Arkansas can remedy its violations of the NVRA and show that providing voter registration services to all eligible citizens is a priority and not just a legal obligation.”
“Arkansas officials took positive steps in response to the 2012 notice letter, but additional steps are needed now to ensure that the State’s public assistance agencies provide their clients with the voter registration opportunities required by federal law,” said Bob Kengle, Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee.
"Every eligible citizen, regardless of race or income, should be afforded the opportunity to register to vote in America, the greatest country in the world,” said Arkansas State Conference NAACP President Dale Charles. “The NAACP strongly urges the Arkansas Secretary of State Office to bring all state public assistance agencies into full NVRA compliance as soon as possible."
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states neglecting the NVRA into compliance with dramatic results. For example, Missouri public assistance agencies received more than 500,000 applications in the four years following a successful court action to improve compliance in that state. Prior to a 2008 court order, Missouri averaged fewer than 8,000 per year. And, after a similar case was settled in Ohio in 2009, voter registration applications from public assistance agencies in the state increased from an average of 25,000 applications per year to more than 200,000 per year.